Monday, 14 November 2016

Like him or not, Philip Yeo does not care

He's a visionary to some and a megalomaniac to others, but one thing all will agree on is that Singapore would not be the same without him
By Wong Kim Hoh, Senior Writer,The Sunday Times, 13 Nov 2016

Mr Philip Yeo grabs a piece of paper on his table and starts doodling furiously.

"Life," he proclaims, right hand deftly executing a series of lines and dots, "is a series of points".

How a person's life pans out, he says, depends on who he meets, and when.

If he had not secured a Colombo Plan scholarship - which came with a five-year government bond - after his A levels, he would not have graduated with a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Toronto.

"If I had not been bonded, I would not have gone to MINDEF," says Mr Yeo, who held various appointments in the Ministry of Defence between 1970 and 1999.

And he would not have met the likes of the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee and minister for defence Howe Yoon Chong, three men who had a profound impact on his 50-year career as a civil servant.

"I never considered myself a career officer or a civil servant. If not for the bond, LKY, Dr Goh and Howe Yong Chong, I would have gone (into the private sector)," says Mr Yeo, who turned 70 last month. "I tried many times to leave. I stayed on because of the nature of the work."

If he had left, the Economic Development Board - which he steered in the 1980s from traditional industries to new high-tech clusters such as semiconductors, aerospace and chemicals - might have been a different kettle of fish.

And there would have been no A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research), the agency synonymous with his name, or Bio- polis or Fusionopolis, the hubs which helped to put Singapore at the forefront of biomedical research. Ditto no Jurong Island, the petrochemical complex, or Batam the industrial park.

"A lot of things," he says, finishing his drawing with a dramatic dot, "would not have happened".

Indeed, Mr Yeo has left quite a mark on Singapore.

One of the country's most colourful, accomplished and controversial bureaucrats, his life has just been chronicled in a book, Neither Civil Nor Servant, written by Peh Shing Huei, a former China bureau chief and news editor of The Straits Times.

Published by Straits Times Press, the volume details a career which is as long as it is diverse, and achievements which are nonpareil in the Singapore civil service.

Holding court in his cavernous office-cum-library at Economic Development Innovations Singapore (EDIS) - the international development company he set up in 2013 - in Fusionopolis, Mr Yeo is wearing a blue shirt, black slacks and a pair of black Nike sneakers.

The choice of footwear is fitting for a septuagenarian on steroids, one who moves as fast as he talks, a Type A personality so full of beans and ideas that if he were a character in a comic strip, he would have too many thought balloons over his head.

Indeed, holding down a conversation with him is a challenge. In the course of conversation lasting more than two hours, he lunges from topics as diverse as electric cars and American politics to stem cells and Battlestar Galactica.

Many adjectives have been used to describe Mr Yeo: visionary, egotistic, trendsetting, maverick, megalomaniac, arrogant, fatherly... They do not bother him.

"Every time I do a job, I focus on the job. I don't look at the personal implications," he says.

"I don't care what people say. Why should I care? People ask me, 'What do people think of you?' Who cares? It's not my problem."

His self-starting instincts kicked in early.

His father - who worked with the Red Cross - died when he was a toddler. The second of three children, he followed his late mother who worked as a live-in domestic helper while his siblings were raised by their grandmother.

He knew his ticket out of poverty and to an overseas education was a scholarship, so he made sure he got good grades in school.

Since there were no scholarships then for aeronautical engineering - his first choice - he opted to read mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto in 1966. But true to his propensity to "do my own thing", he switched to industrial engineering in his second year.

"When I changed, the PSC (Public Service Commission) didn't know what was going on. The PSC were all run by clerks then," he says with a chortle.

Upon his return in 1970, he agitated for an engineering position after a short spell doing government budgets in the Ministry of Finance.

Serendipity smiled on the brash young man; he was made branch head of the logistics division in MINDEF. His job? Come up with systems to equip, feed and clothe the armed forces Singapore was building in the light of the country's independence and the withdrawal of British military forces.

It was, he says, the perfect job fit because his degree schooled him in areas ranging from accounting and organisational psychology to business studies and engineering.

"Logistics to me is problem solving, it's about supply and demand and maintenance. Any war, without logistics, is gone. Guy without bullet, no use. Cannon without shell, no use. Soldier without food, die," he says.

He more than made his mark and was famous for bulldozing through if rules stood in the way of a solution.

"I took a lot of risks because I didn't have patience. My rule was simple: What could they do to me? If they fired me, I would have been happier."

That did not happen. In fact, he vaulted up the ranks.

"I was head of branch in 1970, head of department in 1971, director of finance in 1972 doing the whole defence budget," he says.

It helped that he had a mentor and champion in Dr Goh, then the Minister for Defence, who admired his derring-do and ability to get things done.

Mr Yeo remembers going to Dr Goh, requesting to sign cheques for up to a million dollars, something unheard of in the civil service then.

"I was just 26 or 27 then. I told him the guys who suffered the most were the local contractors because we took months to pay them. Dr Goh said, 'What do you want?' I said, 'I want to sign cheques.'"

Those, he says, were heady times for a self-starter and go-getter like him.

"Dr Goh and LKY and their generation, they got people to do the work and they focused on politics. In that era, there was a lot of delegation and the Government was more preoccupied with policies," he says.

"They left it to us," says Mr Yeo, who helped to build his mentor's vision of developing defence-related companies such as Chartered Industries of Singapore (CIS), which would support the military while being commercially viable. As chairman of CIS between 1979 and 1992, Mr Yeo also pushed for these companies - now known as ST Engineering - to diversify.

Asked if he looked up to Dr Goh as a father figure, he laughs and says: "No lah, he was a slave driver."

But he also admits that if not for the late politician and Mr Lee, he would have long left the civil service.

In fact, Mr Lee - whom he refers to as LKY - stopped him from leaving on a couple of occasions.

In 1999, the founding Prime Minister persuaded Mr Yeo not to accept a $28 million offer from Richard Li - son of Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka Shing - to be executive chairman of his Singapore-based fund management vehicle Pacific Century.

The deal included a $10 million sign-on bonus, $10 million as salary for three years and $8 million in shares and options.

"My wife said we could have bought a big house," he says, mock lament in his voice.

"But LKY called me up and said, 'We depend on you.' The old man kacau'd," he says, using the Malay word for "interfere". "He put psychological pressure on me to stay. LKY was very persuasive."

And so he stayed, became chairman of A*Star until 2007 and beavered away at his plan to turn Singapore into a leading centre for biomedical research.

There were detractors but his initiatives have started bearing fruit. Output from Singapore's biomedical science industry leapt from $6.3 billion in 2000 to $21.5 billion in 2014.

"If I didn't stay, there'd be no biomed, none of this. That's why LKY was appreciative. He once told me, 'The trouble with you is only the older generation appreciates you but the younger does not.'"

Ironically in 2007, he had a public squabble with Mr Lee's daughter, neurologist Lee Wei Ling, over his biomedical research directions.

She said that he did not know what was important because he was not a doctor.

"I didn't need to be a doctor. I was doing science. I'm an engineer and I look at things as a public problem," he says.

Saying that he has made peace with her, he adds: "She has a similar character. She's very direct and blunt, she's just principled."

Asked if he has ever felt that he had bitten off more than he could chew, the man credited with creating billions of dollars of investments and hundreds of thousands of jobs for Singapore says: "No, I always find people to help me. I find slaves. It's very important; it's like contractors and subcontractors."

"I subcontract. I delegate and make sure that things are running but I don't leave them totally unsupervised," adds Mr Yeo, who has spotted and groomed numerous talents including former foreign minister George Yeo and current Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.

Married in 1971, he and his wife Jane have two children: Eugene, 39, is a professor at the University of California, San Diego, while Elaine, 30, is a psychologist.

The hard-nosed commander gives way to indulgent father when he talks about their achievements. One also discerns the same pride in his voice when he talks about his A*Star scholars: He knows exactly who went to Harvard or the University of Illinois, whose husband is German, and how many of them are parents.

"I always invest in young people. I believe they will take over, they are our future."

He may have slipped out of the public eye but he has not slowed down.

Since setting up EDIS, he has been spending a lot of time giving strategic advice to countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Colombia.

He sleeps just five hours a day and spends a lot of time reading. He has a one-terabyte Dropbox which he likens to a "40-ft kelong" filled with reading materials: "science, medicine, ageing, archaeology, immunology, transplantation, robots and drones ..."

It took a long time before he came around to the idea of a biography, one which will no doubt reignite debate about his legacy.

But Mr Richard Sykes, the former head honcho of GlaxoSmithKline and rector of Imperial College, believes Singapore would have been different without his imprint.

In Neither Civil Nor Servant, he describes Mr Yeo as one of the great developers of the country.

"You can have a visionary like Lee Kuan Yew but somebody has to put it into practice. Philip puts things into practice. Philip was a doer and you needed doers, particularly in developing economies."

Mad, mad, mad... about finding jobs for everyone
The Sunday Times, 20 Nov 2016

A public official who considers it an insult to be called a civil servant, Philip Yeo was tasked to chair the Economic Development Board (EDB) when Singapore was in the throes of recession in 1986. His never-say- die attitude, his salesmanship and bulldozing ways - considered mad by some - helped secure investors for Singapore. One thing drove him: getting good jobs for Singaporeans, says a new book on the rule-breaking maverick written by former journalist Peh Shing Huei. Below is an excerpt from the book.

By the mid-1980s, EDB had become "complacent and bureaucratic" and had acquired some "dead wood", wrote Edgar H. Schein in his book Strategic Pragmatism: The Culture Of Singapore's Economic Development Board.

Yeo's entry was meant to shake up the board and, by extension, the economy. He was an unusual choice. The past five EDB chairmen had all spent some of their working career within the EDB. Even though Yeo had been a board member for four years, he had become chairman as an outsider, observed Schein. He added: "The appointment of Philip Yeo as chairman in 1986 was accompanied by a mandate to revitalise the EDB, to reposition its strategy in the new economic context, and to bring back more of the old entrepreneurial spirit."

Yeo, in his inimitable way, was a natural fit. In Heartwork, a book on EDB's success, prominent EDB alumnus Ng Pock Too observed that "whoever leads the EDB must be an entrepreneur, must have a strategic mind, must have guts". Yeo checked all the boxes, said tycoon Kwek Leng Beng.

In one of Yeo's first acts as EDB chairman, he signed off on an advertisement to be placed in The Wall Street Journal. The headline was: "Who would be mad enough to invest in Singapore in a recession?" It carried the signatures of nine global heads of multinational corporations , including Apple, Seagate and Motorola, saying "We are", "We are as well", and "So are we".

It was his first open embrace of an adjective which he was first labelled with in MINDEF, and would be used with increasing frequency by observers in his career. Years later, The Straits Times would introduce his Jurong Island venture with the headline "Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad".

Behind the seeming insanity of the advertisement was a provocative appeal to restore and reinforce investors' confidence in Singapore amid the recession. Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, an EDB old boy, said Yeo was the perfect man to dig Singapore out of the economic trenches. "The recession was tough, really rough. But you do not fear death when you work with Philip Yeo," he said. "In his lingo, 'we never say die'. No matter how difficult it was, he gave us the confidence that there was always a way out. When there's a big battle to fight, he will be there leading at the front."

It worked. Along with other measures pushed out by the authorities, Singapore rebounded from the recession quicker than expected. By the second quarter of 1986, Singapore's GDP had grown by 1.2 per cent and the climb continued to 3.8 per cent in the third quarter. The committee which examined the causes of the downturn, led by then Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Hsien Loong, laid out a plan for the EDB. On top of manufacturing, Singapore would also target services and local enterprises as part of its long-term growth. It also recommended the EDB to move into high value-added industries like chemicals, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

Yeo, the new czar of industries, used the blueprint to get to work. It helped that unlike his EDB predecessors, he controlled a vast empire, stretching from the public sector and into the private state-linked companies. He did not function simply as EDB chairman. He moonlighted in other roles too, continuing the "part-time" work habit which he had started since his MINDEF days.

During most of his EDB tenure, he was concurrently running the Singapore Technologies (ST) group and later on Sembcorp Industries. His experience with ST group, which was diversifying from defence, helped open doors to his new job as the EDB boss. At the same time, his calling card as the Singapore Government's representative provided more opportunities for ST group and Sembcorp. The development of Batam is an example.

"EDB had no resources for a lot of things," he said. "I used all of my Singapore Technologies expense account for my travels and used those trips to take care of EDB's affairs. I was using ST to help EDB. I was a government representative doing business. EDB and ST were my left hand and my right hand."

The blurred lines suited the shape shifter perfectly. One could even call it Yeo's modus operandi, similar to that of his defence days, when he was not only the maker, but also the seller and buyer of weapons.

Such ambidexterity helped him achieve his mission: to create jobs. The annual target was 20,000 jobs for Singapore's school leavers. As he said in the EDB 1992-93 annual report: "The charter of the EDB is broad, yet clear - to create good jobs. Economic development means job creation. Jobs create prosperity and the rest, such as quality of life, will follow. If you have no jobs, there is no quality of life to speak of, no higher standard of living to aspire to."

EDB managing director Tan Chin Nam said: "Philip Yeo's mission was very simple - jobs, jobs, jobs."

Yeo was relentless in his quest and expected his staff to do the same. He travelled extensively across the world, sold Singapore like "a pimp" (in his own words) to multinational corporations and worked tirelessly to find jobs for Singaporeans. "He was probably the best-travelled chairman EDB ever had. He never stopped," said David Lim, another well-known EDB old boy.

The Philip Yeo brand of insanity drew as many critics as adherents. Current EDB chairman Beh Swan Gin said that there are many from the EDB alumni who regard themselves as "Philip Yeo loyalists". "We did our best to support him in whatever it was that he put his mind to," he said. "It wasn't just about obligation because we benefited from him … it's (about) the leadership values that we learnt from him, because he was one boss who backed you, who gave you autonomy. He'd been right many, many more times than he had been wrong and his intentions had always been for the good of Singapore, for advancing Singapore's cause. So it's very easy to be a Philip Yeo loyalist."

In 2010, in a replica of the famous Wall Street Journal advertisement, his officers past and present put together a mock advertisement with the headline "Who would be mad enough to work for Philip Yeo?" There were 13 signatories, including then labour chief Lim Swee Say, David Lim, Tan Chin Nam, politicians Josephine Teo and Lee Yi Shyan and JTC chairman Manohar Khiatani among others. They were all part of Yeo's EDB mafia.

Philip Yeo story part of Singapore success story
Country could make rapid progress because people like him didn't let red tape trip them up
Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 20 Nov 2016

When you listen to Philip Yeo talk about how he got things done in the early years of Singapore's development, you wonder if he is talking about a different place.

I had been hearing him quite a bit the last year, sitting in in all the 10 interviews that author Peh Shing Huei had with the man for the book, Neither Civil Nor Servant: The Philip Yeo Story, which has just been launched.

Of course, Mr Yeo is not the typical civil servant.

For one thing, he hates to be called one, because he hates writing papers (preferring to just do it), meetings (he can make a decision without having one), and he hates bean counters who block him from charging ahead with his projects.

As I listened to him, it was clear what I was hearing wasn't just his story but part of the larger Singapore story.

When people talk about how the country has made such rapid progress over the years, the founding political leaders take centre stage - Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam and their other Cabinet colleagues.

They had the vision, political courage and total commitment to make Singapore succeed against the odds.

But you also need capable people to implement those nation- building projects - building an army, housing a people, industrialising the country and developing its infrastructure.

The work fell largely on a group of trusted civil servants who worked closely with their political masters, often with inadequate resources but always with courage and conviction - men like Howe Yoon Chong, Sim Kee Boon, George Bogaars and Joe Pillay.

Mr Yeo started at least 10 years later but he was so quick off the block, he made his mark as well in many of those early endeavours.

What was it about this group that enabled them to do so much, how did they do it, and why are they so different from today's mandarins?

The answers are not just of historical interest but might help Singaporeans understand how the country got here and what it takes to bring it to the next level of development in these challenging times.

First, you have to understand how differently civil servants like Mr Yeo operated.

How differently? Here are two of my favourite stories.

When he was made branch head of the Logistics Division in the Ministry of Defence in 1970 at the age of 24, tasked to equip, clothe and feed the fledgling army, it was mission impossible because he had all of four staff.

But he didn't let that deter him or complain to his superiors or write a memo asking for more manpower.

Instead he pored through computer printouts of all the enlisted men looking for those with university degrees, preferably in engineering, and "who couldn't march straight".

He was looking for misfits whom he knew the army didn't know what to do with, making them clerks and storemen despite their educational qualifications.

As Peh wrote in his book: "He visited every logistics camp and struck a deal with the commanding officers for these non-combatants to be transferred to him - with one condition. 'They remain with you on paper but they work for me'."

That was how he was able to get 250 enlisted graduates - his systems engineers as he called them - to work directly for him, and so Philip Yeo's own army was formed, one of several he would subsequently gather to do the many projects he undertook for Singapore.

Years later, when he was in charge of the Economic Development Board and hatched a plan to develop the Indonesian island Batam as an offshore manufacturing location for Singapore-based companies, he had this conversation with his mentor, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee:

"Good idea. What are you going to do?" asked Dr Goh.

"I want to start work now," Yeo replied.

"How can you start work now? You need to have a proper G to G (government to government) agreement."

"What is G to G? I have never dealt with Indonesia. What do I have to do to get G to G?"

"You have to write an aide-memoire for PM Lee to take up with President Suharto."

"What is an aide-memoire? What do I write?"

"I will write it for you."

It might have been the first time in Singapore that a minister wrote a paper for a civil servant but Dr Goh was happy to oblige because he knew Mr Yeo could deliver; he just couldn't write.

It is tempting to dismiss these stories as the quirks of a known maverick who went against the grain.

But underpinning his swashbuckling style were the same qualities he shared with his pioneer generation colleagues: a can-do spirit, a strong conviction that Singapore could succeed, and courage to do what they believed was right.

I was fortunate to have started my civil service career under Mr Sim, another master at getting things done but in a quieter and less abrasive way.

He always made you feel that you could solve any problem if you put your mind to it and he was adept at getting people to work together even if they came from different organisations.

Others like Mr Pillay, whom I interviewed earlier this year at a forum which I moderated, couldn't be more different in temperament from Mr Yeo, but the commitment and drive to make Singapore succeed were as strong.

They also shared several common experiences which I believe shaped their thinking and contributed to their success.

First, they were given big jobs at a young age, usually in their 20s.

By the time they were in their early 30s, all had made permanent secretaries - the highest rank in the service.

When you are young and fearless, perhaps even reckless, and are not afraid to take risks and go against the conventional wisdom, you learn fast from your failures and successes.

When bureaucracies mature, they become more risk-averse, preferring not to rock the boat.

The learning slows down.

Second, these young pioneering officers worked closely with the Old Guard leadership, mainly then PM Lee and Dr Goh.

Their political masters were tough and demanding but when their confidence in these men grew, they were given room to grow.

In the book, Mr Yeo spoke affectionately about his mentor, Dr Goh, and how he was given plenty of leeway to operate as long as he delivered what his boss wanted.

"Conversations were very short - 'I want this thing solved'. No sermon on the mount... So I learnt to find out what he wanted, and just said okay, okay."

Over time, as the relationship grew, these civil servants repaid the confidence their political masters had in them with even higher levels of performance and responsibilities.

As Mr Yeo recounted, Dr Goh's preferred method of rewarding high performance was to give the officer even more work.

Third, while permanent secretaries are known to be generalists able to take on any job, the pioneer civil servants tended to stay on in a particular area, building up their expertise and experience.

Mr Yeo worked in MINDEF for 15 years, and on economic and technology issues in EDB and A*Star for 11 years.

Mr Pillay is best known for his work in economics and financial matters, serving in the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Authority of Singapore for more than 20 years.

There is a lesson here for the civil service today when officers tend to be rotated after much shorter stints.

You have to wonder if this makes sense when problems are more complex today, demanding specialised knowledge and experience.

In recounting these stories, I am not saying that civil servants were better in the past.

It was a different time with a very different set of problems.

But I think it is useful especially for younger Singaporeans to know how an older generation made the grade.

They were civil servants but they didn't allow the bureaucracy to get in their way.

The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

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